The word "era" is overused in sports. There was a Muhammad Ali Era in boxing. Mike Tyson merely had a stretch of time, at best. The Boston Celtics had an era all their own in professional basketball. Until the Cleveland Cavaliers win, oh, five or six NBA titles, the word should never appear in the same sentence as LeBron James' name. In St. Louis Cardinals terms, Stan Musial had an era. Mark McGwire? A stretch.
Make no mistake, though, a new era of Cardinals baseball begins this week, as the two-time defending National League Central champs begin play in the "new" Busch Stadium, the latest retro/modern ballpark to be built with all the luxuries and amenities the 21st-century fan could desire. Built literally in the shadow of "old" Busch (where the Cardinals played since 1966), the new stadium will have some serious standards for which to aim. The Cards won no fewer than 10 pennants and seven world championships in old Sportsman's Park (where they played from 1920 to 1965), then six more pennants and a pair of World Series titles at "old" Busch. So what can we expect from the 2006 Cardinals, here in Year One of the New Busch Era?
Whether or not the Cardinals win 100 games for the third year in a row will depend largely on the performance of their starting rotation, which appears to be as deep as any in the game. Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Sidney Ponson, have each won at least 15 games in a season. Ponson pitched well enough in March to bump Adam Wainwright into the St. Louis bullpen and keep top prospect Anthony Reyes in Memphis for more Triple-A seasoning. And there's an interesting twist on this quintet of hurlers: only Carpenter (the 2005 NL Cy Young winner) has a contract for 2007. Motivation shouldn't be a problem.
The Cards' biggest off-season acquisition may turn out to be a healthy left shoulder for third baseman Scott Rolen. After finishing fourth in the MVP voting in 2004, Rolen missed 106 games last season after injuring his shoulder in a base-running collision. A healthy Rolen added to a lineup that already includes 2005 MVP Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds gives St. Louis a kind of sock rarely seen outside Yankee Stadium. (Rolen drilled a grand slam on Opening Day in Philadelphia, perhaps a good sign for things to come.) The Cards also got younger over the winter, replacing 35-year-old Mark Grudzielanek at second base with former Rockie Aaron Miles (29), and filling the shoes of newly retired rightfielder Larry Walker (39) with former Marlin Juan Encarnacion (30). A pair of former Memphis Redbirds -- So Taguchi and John Rodriguez -- will platoon in leftfield.
Along with Atlanta, Houston, and the New York Mets, St. Louis is one of four National League clubs that can realistically make the World Series part of their October plans. And only the Cardinals have Pujols batting third every day. With another 30-home run campaign (Pujols is the only player in history to hit 30 in each of his first five seasons), Albert the Great will move into the top-five for a franchise that has been playing for 115 years. Having achieved by age 26 what would be the envy of most players 10 years older -- Rookie of the Year, batting champ, Silver Slugger, NLCS MVP, league MVP -- Pujols remains locked on the one piece of hardware he's been denied: a world championship trophy. While the rest of Cardinal Nation may be gazing at the sights of New Busch, one man will be playing with blinders on.
Here in Memphis, we know something of new ballparks, and the way they become more than a weekend destination, but a stage for family memories, a launching pad for summer tales and reminiscing. ("Remember that second-baseman who did the back flips?") St. Louis finds itself in the topsy-turvy role of emulating its Triple-A affiliate, hoping for the impact AutoZone Park has made on downtown Memphis . . . just on a major-league scale. (Judging by the entire season practically selling out the day tickets went on sale in early March, the new park is ahead of the curve.) As swank and fancy as the new stadium may be though, a World Series championship remains the elusive goal for what has been a nice stretch in Cardinal history. A tenth world championship for St. Louis and we might just start talking about the Tony LaRussa Era.